Bribes and Body Boundaries
Recently I was interviewed for the Raising Toddlers Courageously online conference, all about sexual abuse prevention and body boundaries and consent. Besides talking about those, I mentioned incentivizing…specifically, how we’d used gummy bears to get our toddler into her car seat.
Then came the scandalized posts in the discussion group about me recommending bribes (yes, I used that word). I’m curious to hear your reaction too! Allow me to explain…
I am an advocate for giving your child as much autonomy over their body as possible. This is a fundamental step in gaining strong body boundaries. It empowers a child to stand up for themselves whenever something happens that doesn’t feel good to their body.
However, there have been times for us – and for all parents, I imagine! – when this has “backfired” and my daughter has asserted that she doesn’t want to do what we want her to do, and it’s her body.
One of my friends struggles with getting her toddler’s teeth brushed, and she recounted to me how her dentist recommended putting the child in a headlock. I shuddered. I’m sure you can imagine many reasons why that’s a terrible route to go.
In our family, we’ve managed to find some playful ways to get my daughter’s teeth brushed. To prep her for her first dentist appointment, and all subsequent ones, we’d play “dentist.” She’d sit in my lap and lie back into my husband’s and he’d brush her teeth. When she doesn’t want to do that, I tried an idea I gleaned from Tosha Score, brushing her ear with the toothbrush and asking if that would prevent cavities, then her nose, then her hair…it gets the giggles going, and then she shows me the right way to do it. Some days, we brush her stuffed animal’s teeth, and then of course, it’s her turn.
Other days, no game is good enough! If it comes down to physical force vs. skipping it, we’ve always let it go.
Something we can’t be as flexible about, though, is the car seat. My daughter has to get into her car seat each weekday morning to go to nursery school. Understandably, she’s disliked her car seat from day 1 – what curious active child wants to be strapped down? – and toddlerhood didn’t change that.
We tried everything we could think of. “Special time” during which she got to play in the car, pushing buttons, steering, hanging off the coat handles. Stuffed animals getting strapped in wrong so that she could show them the right way. Stern statements and limit setting. Breakfast snacks in the car seat. Songs and stories that couldn’t begin until she was bucked up.
For a while there, nothing was working, and my husband was chronically late getting my daughter to school, and himself to work or appointments. Some days she’d climb right in, but more often than not, she’d refuse and want to play in the car. They’d get into a power struggle and my husband would get frustrated. A few times he tried overpowering her, but she’s strong! And it broke his heart to hear her wail “My Body!” “No Papa!” “That hurts!”
What to do? Be late every morning and take the real-world consequences of that? Physically force her into the car seat? Or…try a bribe?
Yes, we called it a “bribe” amongst ourselves, because “incentive” is a kinder word, and we didn’t want to become complacent about what we were doing. Our daughter has gummy bear vitamins, and we started giving those to her in the car, after she was buckled in. It worked like magic.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. I too have read all about fostering internal motivation, avoiding rewards of any kind because in the long run they promote external motivation, “what do I get if I do ___?” kind of nightmare. In the long run, rewards don’t work.
Knowing that, we were careful to keep this temporary and not let the gummy bears become routine. Some days she’d get 2. Some days she got 1. Some days she got 3. Some days the gummy bears had been “forgotten” and she got them at home. When my husband noticed her expecting them, there’d be a dry spell. Within a month she was “weaned” from gummy bears and acclimated to the routine of getting into her car seat promptly.
We consider this to be a success, and that’s what I was trying to share briefly in the interview. The response in Facebook discussion group, however, was not warm. One mother pointed out that this is exactly how an abuser would manipulate a child into doing what the child didn’t want to do. Isn’t this setting my daughter up to compromise her boundaries?
I don’t think so. I think small children are bribable, period. Yes, this is what an abuser would do, because it works. I wish that we could prevent child sexual abuse by being vigilant to never bribe kids, but I don’t think that would actually have an impact.
What it boils down to, for me, is a partnership model of parenting. If I know that she’ll be uncomfortable in her car seat, but I have to ask her to tolerate that discomfort, what can I do to make it as bearable as possible? Getting to consent matters to me, and I think this is not so different from the negotiations and compromises we navigate everyday as adults.
Though we were at our wits end, I’m sure there are things we didn’t think of to try. If you have a totally different answer to this problem, or a different point of view all together, please comment below! This was not an easy one for us to crack, and we totally muddled through.
When there wasn’t an appealing solution, we chose what we thought was the least bad one – but sharing the story does open us up to criticism. If you’ve gone through this too, I hope you can shed any shame or doubt that lingers. Honestly, I think you probably did just fine.
In support of you,